The Good, Long Look

Catherine Murphy pays close attention to the mundane and unobtrusive; her extraordinary, hauntingly beautiful paintings are of things seen on the quick, in a glimpse: a child's plastic wading pool, a red brick chimney, a wide, black belt cinching the waist of a woman in a striped dress, the view through a screen porch window of the lush woods beyond. All are rendered painstakingly, and with great precision, as if by virtue of a stare that never seems to end.

There's a deep sense of quiet in Murphy's paintings, of breath both held and released. She fuses her realism with geometric rigor and painterly sensuality; it's not that she moves from realism to abstraction but that she's found a space between the two. As you spend time with a painting -- staring, say, at the child's wading pool -- your eyes adjust, and the space begins to open up. You look at the painting up close, then you move back. You see oddly angled, vertiginous spaces. Variegated light and color sneak up on you.

Time is the key to appreciating Murphy. She obsessively devotes several years to a single painting, working on the canvas for only a few hours each day as light permits; her art is as much a form of behavior as a product of craft. She expects her viewers to take their time as well. In a quick-take era, she demands that you pause and pay attention. You contemplate every autumn leaf, every pine needle, trash bag and roof shingle, and each rewards you. Simultaneously, you feel the sudden reality of a specific place and you appreciate the painting, distinct from its subject. You are conscious of the painting as a space filled with forms, of Murphy constantly locating herself -- and you -- within a grid, a place where the traditions of art connect with life.

This particular show combines circular and rectangular shapes with intricately lyrical textures. For My Shadow, On Stucco the artist freezes a moment of light and shadow on a blood-orange ground. On closer inspection, the illusory stucco becomes an incredibly complex terrain of whirling eddies and shifting crosscurrents formed by deliberate, minuscule strokes.

Cinched Waist hearkens to '50s nostalgia (think Brigitte Bardot or Fiestaware) while setting up a subtle interplay of nature, culture and the feminine. To either side of the cropped hips are triangular patches of forest. Moreover, skittering staccato dabs of paint coalesce and dissipate across the horizontal bands of the dress. The right side is hit squarely by early-morning (or late-afternoon) sun and fairly shimmers with yellow-golds, dark tans and iridescent blues. The surface of Cinched Waist may seem cold, even impenetrable. But as an unending entanglement of dab, stroke and line, the painting delivers a ravishment of sensations, a feeling of infinite density.

The power of Murphy's paintings resides in the absence of a bravura style. She doesn't show us the trappings of a settled, happy life or make sentimental paeans to the landscape. Rather, her paintings are about seeing and the responsibility one brings to the act. Porch Screen is a fastidiously detailed study of light and shadow. Formally austere, it's divided into quadrants by a thick, green window frame. Sunlight splinters through the screen and distant firs, revealing translucent layers of green, pink, lavender and cream. Scattered across the picture plane are leaves, varying light-green and brown daubs against the increasingly dense verdure of the background. The effect is sumptuous and absorbing.

As the eye lingers, individual marks detach themselves from the picture's surface. Light along the sides of the trunks becomes merely linear skeins of white; the plush tangle of leaves becomes dabs of green. Some of those dabs seem to twist at odd angles to the overall flow; others remain as brushy, gestural shapes on a flattened ground or push forward, defying their roles as signifiers of depth. But none of this seductive play of the paint robs the work of its representational vigor. At any moment, a dab of paint can snap back to being light on the side of a leaf or a receding depth in the woods.

In the painting of a child's wading pool, leaping dolphins embossed in the cheap plastic mold form a yin-yang sign, while yellow-orange leaves that have fallen across the blue basin indicate a change of seasons. In Helium Balloon, a round mylar balloon floats in the corner of a blue-walled room. At the balloon's center is a ballerina in a pink tutu; pink silhouettes of more ballerinas line up behind her.

Even more steeped in everyday obscurity is Trash Bags, in which two bundled bags are placed in pristine, luminous snow. Murphy paints the dark black-green bag in the foreground with rhythmical, seemingly effortless graphic virtuosity, evocative of Ingres, spinning lines across the canvas. Nature is visible here, albeit in hiding.

All the paintings maintain a kind of cool, iconic presence. They are emblematic of a quieter pace, a slower ravishment that seduces us with craft, wit and poetry. These are hard-won paintings, clear indications of Murphy's discipline and formal intelligence. With this group, she insists that paintings can be magical places where virtually anything is possible.

Paintings by Catherine Murphy will be on view through March 8 at Texas Gallery, 2012 Peden, (713)524-1593.


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